‘The Old Vic building itself seemed to speak to me’
A recent small-hours walk landed Kevin Spacey in the headlines – but another late-night jaunt a few years ago resulted in his becoming artistic director of the troubled Old Vic. The Oscar-winning star tells Charles Spencer about the allure of Waterloo
Meeting Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic, a few days before the infamous mugging that never was, I found myself irresistibly reminded of Victor Kiam. You remember old Victor, who so regularly appeared on TV commercials announcing that he loved the Remington shaver so much that he bought the company.
Well Spacey, the double Oscar-winning Hollywood actor, loved the Old Vic so much that he became its artistic director.
When I first read last year that Spacey was to become the theatre’s boss, I assumed it was all a bit of a stunt. Kev would be the front man, supplying the glamour and luring Hollywood stars to Blighty, but surely the nuts and bolts of running this glorious but often troubled theatre would fall to other, less celebrated hands?
Spacey, after all, has taken Hollywood by storm in the past decade, in movies that include The Usual Suspects, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, LA Confidential, Glengarry Glen Ross, Seven and Sam Mendes’s triumphant American Beauty, which won Spacey the Best Actor Academy Award.
Later this year sees the release of his biopic about the singer Bobby Darin, Beyond the Sea, in the planning for more than a decade, in which Spacey not only stars, but also served as producer and director.
How could anyone want to turn their back on the glamour and money of the movies to run a troubled theatre in south London which not so long ago was threatened with conversion into a lap-dancing club?
After spending an hour and a half in Spacey’s company, however, I emerged from the Old Vic convinced that he is a man who means business, is in it for the long haul, and could be just the chap to restore the theatre to its former glories. It’s the first time so high-profile an actor has doubled as a theatre’s director since Olivier ran the National Theatre company at the same address in the ’60s and early ’70s.
“I understand why people might feel skeptical,” says Spacey. “I’ve sensed over the past year since my appointment was announced that people look at me with narrowed eyes as if to say, ‘Are you really doing this?’, and the only way I’ll be able to prove that I’m serious is just by turning up to work every day.”
Spacey, 44, has great charm, a lively sense of humour and great gifts as a mimic (I was treated to an excellent John Gielgud). He is notoriously cagey about his private life, which came into the spotlight again this week when he told the police that he had been mugged in a south London park at 4.30am, only to withdraw the allegation a few hours later, confessing that he had actually tripped over his dog while giving pursuit to a youth who had conned him out of his mobile phone. The drop-dead cool Spacey suddenly seemed slightly ridiculous.
But in person there is a slightly scary confidence and authority about him that suggests that he will make a natural leader. To those who try to delve into his private life – he has denied persistent speculation that he is gay – Spacey once replied:
“It’s not that I want to create some mystique by maintaining a silence about my personal life. It’s just that the less you know about me, the easier it is to convince you that I’m that character on the screen.”
Spacey has been so big in the movies over the past nine years that it’s easy to forget that he is at heart a theatre actor, with an impressive CV that includes Shakespeare, Chekhov, and a great deal of new writing.
It is not, however, a fact that will be forgotten by anyone who saw his sensational performance as Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s dark four-and-a-half hour masterpiece, The Iceman Cometh, at the Almeida Theatre in 1998.
This was an indisputably great performance, in an indisputably great production by Howard Davies. It was also the show that led Spacey back to the Old Vic, which he had first attended as a child with his anglophile parents.
The Iceman Cometh was so successful that it clearly had to move to a larger theatre, but Spacey, who was producing the transfer himself, wasn’t happy with any of the West End houses he saw.
“So I asked if the Old Vic was available. Everybody’s first response was yeah, well it’s over on the South Bank. Audiences can’t find it, you don’t want to go there. And I said, well, they find Wembley, they fill Wembley. Can we go look?” So he did.
“There was nothing playing here at the time and I walked on to the stage, looked out at the house and I knew instantly that was where we should come.”
The Old Vic run of The Iceman Cometh proved a huge success, and Sally Greene, who set up the Old Vic Trust in 1998 to safeguard the theatre’s future when it was up for sale amid fears that it could become a themed pub or a lap-dancing club, was quickly on his case. He coughed up a six-figure sum for the fighting fund and joined the board.
Before long he was also on a committee with the brief of deciding who should run the theatre once its future had been secured and it became a producing theatre again, rather than merely a receiving house. And not long after that, Spacey made an astonishing 2am journey to the theatre that was beginning to obsess him. As he describes that fateful night, his voice becomes mesmeric, as if recalling a spiritual experience.
After an evening at the theatre to discuss its future, Spacey returned to his hotel, only to find that his mind was racing and he couldn’t sleep. So he hailed a cab, and got it to take him to the South Bank.
“He dropped me off and I walked to the river and looked up at the National Theatre and I thought about what that theatre means, and the work that’s been done there and why Olivier made the choice to move there at the time he did. Then I walked four blocks down to the Emma Cons garden, opposite the front of the Old Vic, and I sat there and looked up at the building and it just hit me.
“I thought, what are you doing, you’re sitting on this committee, you’re talking to all these people, you’re holding all these discussions trying to find the right person to run the place, and the answer is staring you in the face. The building itself seemed to be speaking to me, saying, this is what you are meant to do.
“You also have to put it in the context of what was happening in my life at that time. American Beauty had just opened and I had a feeling that nothing was going to measure up to that for a while. And now I’m staring at this theatre and I’m thinking, ‘Right, what am I going to do with the next 10 years of my life? Movie after movie after movie, occasionally trying to squeeze in the odd play?
“And I thought, no, I’d rather do it the other way round. I’d rather do play after play after play after play and occasionally squeeze in the odd movie.” The decision, he says with a click of his fingers, “was made just like that”.
Having decided what he wanted to do, he offered his services to the Old Vic Trust, which snapped up his offer. But in order to meet his film commitments and to make sure he completed the Darin film, he said he couldn’t start until autumn 2004.
“I drew a line in the sand. I said if this leaks, then I won’t come. And that will tell us whether we can keep secrets or not. What I didn’t want is for all this to be perceived as some Hollywood actor coming in on his white horse to save British theatre.”
So Spacey has had plenty of time to think about his plans for the Old Vic. As his producer, he signed up David Liddiment, until recently director of programmes of the ITV network and a man with a strong track record in working with writers, and this week the pair of them announced their plans for their first year.
It is a varied, and indeed brave, season, kicking of with a new play, Cloaca, by the unknown Dutch writer Maria Goos. It concerns a crisis in the lives of four fortysomething men, and Spacey, who will direct it himself, insists that it is a corker, funny and touching and with a strong cast including Hugh Bonneville, Stephen Tompkinson and Neil Pearson. The play sounds as if it has distinct similarities with Yasmina Reza’s Art. If it enjoys similar commercial success, the new regime at the Old Vic will be off to a flying start.
The theatre will celebrate Christmas with a traditional panto, with Sir Ian McKellen, no less, climbing into frocks to play Widow Twankey, a nice nod to the theatre’s vaudevillian past. Then Spacey himself will star in the British première of National Anthems by the American dramatist Dennis McIntyre, playing a fireman who infiltrates himself into the housewarming party of a pair of Detroit yuppies, a funny, intense, real-time drama, says Spacey, that lays bare the American dream.
The final play of the season will be Philip Barry’s great romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story, best remembered for the film version starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart, with Spacey in the Cary Grant role, and I suspect other big stars on board too.
Spacey insists that he hasn’t forgotten that the Old Vic is most strongly associated with Shakespeare, and says the Bard will have a major role to play in his second season. By the third season he hopes an ensemble company will have begun to establish itself, allowing cross-casting across the plays and perhaps a return to rep. He will also ensure that at every performance, 100 tickets will be available to younger audience members for just £12.
It’s a high-risk strategy. Each of the productions, apart from the panto, is scheduled to run for 12 weeks. The shows will need to be good to ensure full houses for so long, and the Old Vic has no public subsidy to cushion it against failure.
But the South Bank has become hugely fashionable in recent years, with attractions such as the Globe, Tate Modern, and the London Eye, and Spacey’s enthusiasm and confidence is infectious. After so many years in which the Old Vic seems to have muddled from one crisis to another, theatre-lovers will be wishing Spacey all the luck in the world in restoring it to the glory days of old.